Becoming a composer without going to uni

The first of a new series of articles chronicling a gap year singing at an English cathedral

By Jacob Fitzgerald
Wednesday 22 September 2021 at 11:09

Growing up in a family in which my parents and older brothers are all academics, the expectation was always that I would follow the same path. The truth is that this scared me. I have always been the sort of person who throughout school had their eyes on the end of it all: getting out, being free, and in my case pursuing a career as a freelance composer.

The challenge of starting a career as a musician

About four years ago, a tutor on a course I was attending at Aldeburgh Young Musicians made a passing observation that has stuck with me ever since. She explained that in her early career she was afraid of branding herself as a ‘professional musician’. In fact, the reality was that most of her money was made during the morning, working in an office job, and it was not possible for her to earn a living solely from the hours she spent rehearsing and gigging in the afternoons and evenings. Looking back, however, she now believes that during this time she was wrong not to view herself as a professional musician. Where her money came from was not so much a reflection on her as it was on the nature of the classical music industry.

Skipping uni—for the time being

So, with this vision in mind of pursuing a career as a professional freelance composer, straight out of school, I came to the realisation that however much this was the dream, I would need something else to support myself in order to live. Also, somewhere to live, and to write. I decided on a gap year of sorts, although something rather different from the clichéd overseas do-goodery of the ‘gap yah’.

Exploring options, I discovered various placements at cathedrals around the country, which to successful applicants, provide a place to live and a bursary in exchange for singing at daily services. I was fortunate enough to gain such a position at Hereford Cathedral, where I now live two minutes’ walk from the Song School and sing eight services a week in a stunning eighth-century building, balancing this with work for Olsen Verlag and at a local gin distillery. This leaves the rest of my time to be spent writing music, as well as tending to the vegetable patch in the front garden!

Would I call myself a professional composer?

Ironically, the majority of my current income actually does come from my music-related work, if not composition specifically. Would I call myself a professional composer? No. Professional musician even? Possibly. All I do know is that, aged 18, I have managed to somehow land myself in a position in which every morning I wake up and the bulk of my time is spent eating, singing, and writing music (repeat). And I’m financially stable. I even have three commissions on the go at present, and upcoming performances of my music in St John’s Smith Square, Conway Hall and on BBC Radio 3.

What’s next?

In this series of articles, I’ll be writing about my experiences at Hereford, reflecting on the ups and downs of developing my career as a composer and musician, from how I manage my time and stay organised, to more specific commentary on the choral and new music scenes. I will also be exploring and deciding in real time what to do next, and sharing this with you. I have a few ideas as to what to do, come September 2022, but everything is still very much up in the air.

How long this dream time will last, I don’t know. It may be that, come next year, I will be working in a coffee shop by day and pulling pints by night. But as long as I’m writing music or singing for money, for someone, I will not be afraid to call myself a composer or a musician.

Do you have questions for Jacob about his career and studies? Are there any topics you'd like him to address in future articles? We'd love to hear from you, so feel free to get in touch and we'll pass suggestions onto Jacob.